The Good News About Acne

Acne is not caused by poor hygiene or diet.

Mirella Giudice, BScPharm, is a Drug Information Pharmacist at the Ottawa Hospital, General Campus, Ottawa

If you have acne, you may be confused with all the information that’s out there. The good news is that you can get excellent results from treatment — whether your acne is mild, moderate, or severe.

Who gets acne and what causes it?

Anyone can get acne, but it is most common in people between the ages of 11 and 30. It may affect the face, neck, chest, back, scalp, upper arms, and buttocks. Many factors may cause acne, such as hormonal changes (e.g., teenage years, high levels of testosterone in the body, pregnancy), heredity, environment (e.g., heat and humidity), certain medications (e.g., birth control pills, corticosteroids), oil-based cosmetics, stress, and physical pressure (e.g., from headbands or sports helmets).

Stages of acne

We all have sweat glands that secrete an oily substance (known as sebum) via pores (hair follicles) onto the surface of the skin. If you produce too much sebum, the pores may become blocked with sebum and dead skin cells. You may then see a soft, white plug (whitehead). When the plug remains open, air causes the surface to darken, forming a blackhead. Pimples are formed when the pore becomes inflamed. If pimples become infected, pus-filled bumps (pustules) will form. Nodules are the most severe form of acne. They are thick, pus-filled lumps beneath the surface of the skin and are usually painful. You should see your doctor right away if you have pustules or nodules. Newer treatments can be extremely effective.

How is acne treated?

There is no cure for acne, but many non-drug measures may be taken in order to control it. You can safely:

  • Wash with a mild soap or soapless cleanser no more than twice daily, but avoid scrubbing
  • Shave gently and keep it to a minimum
  • Choose only oil-free cosmetics and use as little as possible. Avoid products labelled as water-based as they may still contain oils. “Non-comedogenic” cosmetics are not always oil-free.

Although tempting, it is important not to pick at or squeeze acne pimples as this may lead to scarring or discolouring of the skin.

What about medications for acne?

For milder acne, you may try over-the-counter products, such as peeling agents or exfoliants (sulfur, salicylic acid) and antibacterials (benzoyl peroxide, chlorhexidine). These come as soaps, washes, creams, lotions, gels, pads, and astringents. Apply these once or twice daily to the entire affected area. Don’t despair, many weeks of treatment are usually needed before a response is seen, and acne may actually get worse before it improves. If these products aren’t helping, you may want to discuss prescription drugs with your physician. Options include both antibiotics (pill or ointment) as well as forms of vitamin A.

If acne is bothering you, do not hesitate to speak with your doctor or pharmacist. There are many effective treatments available!